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Jan 20, 10:31 AM EST

Syria lets Russia expand its Mediterranean naval facility

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MOSCOW (AP) -- Syria has allowed Russia to significantly expand its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus and keep using it for decades to come, according to an agreement released on Friday.

The facility is the only such outpost Russia has outside the former Soviet Union. The Russian military has used Tartus to back its campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad against fighters battling to oust him.

Under the agreement, which was signed in Damascus on Wednesday, Syria has offered Russia free use of the Soviet-era facility for 49 years. The term can be automatically extended for further 25-year periods if neither side objects.

The deal also allows Russia to modernize the site so that it can host up to 11 ships at a time, including the nuclear-powered ones. For now, Tartus only has room for a couple of mid-sized ships at a time. The Soviet Union first signed a deal with Syria to establish the facility in 1983.

The new agreement says that the Russian facility in Tartus will help "support peace and stability in the region," adding that "it has a defensive character and isn't directed against any other nation."

It also says the Russian military will ensure air defense of Tartus and also protect it from the sea. The agreement also stipulates that Russia will help Syria restore its Soviet-built warships.

Last August, Russian lawmakers ratified another deal allowing Russia to keep its forces at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, Assad's Alawite heartland, for as long as it wants. The deal was signed in August 2015 in Damascus, a month before the Russian air campaign began.

The Russian military intervention has helped shore up Assad and allowed his troops to reclaim key ground, including the nation's largest city of Aleppo that was fully reclaimed by the government last months following fierce battles.

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